Kevin Rudd, foreign minister of Australia, speaks during the 65th annual United Nations General Assembly at the UN in New York, U.S., on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2010. The General Debate portion of the General Assembly runs until Sept. 29. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images
By Kevin Rudd
August 31, 2016

In an age of a fracturing political support for the European Union, the re-birth of American isolationism, the growing international political confidence on the parts of both Russia and China, the daily threat of violent jihadism and a chronically weak global economy, deep questions have arisen about the long-term durability of what we continue to blithely refer to as the “post-war global order.”

The uncomfortable truth is that many of the assumptions underpinning the current order are under profound challenge. Geopolitically, U.S.-China and U.S.-Russia relations are more unstable than they have been in a quarter of a century, even as Russia-China relations have rarely been closer. Geoeconomically, despite the Chinese economic slowdown, China remains on track to surpass the U.S. as the biggest economy in the world sometime next decade—the first time since the reign of Britain’s King George III that a non-western, non-democratic, non-English speaking country has occupied this position.

Meanwhile the dynamics of globalization, driven by finance and technology, are compounding in speed, intensity and complexity. On the one hand, this is generating greater demand for effective global governance, in areas such as finance, terrorism and climate change. But on the other we are confronted by a new range of counter-globalization forces, from those who aren’t benefiting from globalization, expressed as rampant nationalism, protectionism and xenophobia. Politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, and Marine Le Pen are just the most notable of several such manifestations around the world.

This is turn is producing a crisis of the nation state itself, caught in a new no-man’s land between this combination of centripetal and centrifugal forces being generated by the “globalization of everything,” with the state itself rendered increasingly powerless. The resulting political alienation of the citizenry has, in turn, been compounded by nearly a decade of poor global growth, high unemployment and even worse, chronically high youth unemployment, both in the developed and developing worlds. People now see their states are increasingly useless in dealing with their real problems.

All this is before a further quantum disruption arises from the next generation of technological change, in particular in the mass application of artificial intelligence, and the emergence of “jobs-free” growth across a growing number of industries. We have barely begun to calculate the full domestic and international impact of this profound economic change. We will need to recalibrate the idea of a viable “social contract,” both within and between states, if we are to maximize the prospects of poverty alleviation, greater equality and long-term political stability.

Finally there is our collective date with demographic destiny. Global population is projected to increase by one third by mid-century, and in parts of the world that are already the least politically stable, and most economically vulnerable. And all this in an employment-starved world, sowing the seeds for a new wave of political extremism, religious fundamentalism and the mass movements of peoples seeking better and more secure lives elsewhere.

Most challenging of all, this extraordinary cocktail of strategic, political, economic, social and technological change is unfolding all at once. Neither our national, nor our international institutions are capable of the effective action necessary to deal with these challenges. In fact, as the demand for effective global governance becomes stronger, the actual supply of such governance has rarely been weaker.

So what can be done? We cannot wave a magic wand and expect the state of great power relations to suddenly improve. Nor can we simply release pious statements railing expecting governments to resist the politically seductive, albeit economically destructive, temptation of the new protectionism, re-open the arteries of global trade and rebuild global growth. Even less can we call a halt to technological innovation, not least because of the remarkable good it also delivers humankind. But what we can do is act to improve the effectiveness of the creaking institutions of global governance that we do have at our disposal, because these are the very mechanisms that are available to us to sustain a working global order, a rules-based system and through them respond to the major challenges of our time.

Principal among these is the United Nations, now 70 years old, the core of what remains of the multilateral system. Its in danger of drifting into global irrelevance. But despite the deep skepticism that now surrounds the institution’s effectiveness, the UN still matters, and matters more than we think, because it remains the formal corner stone on which much of the current global order rests—whether we happen to be conscious of that reality, or not. In fact, it’s because the UN has become such a comfortable part of the international furniture, we tend to take it for granted, and we’ve allowed it to drift.

While the UN is not broken, it is in real trouble, as states increasingly bypass it when looking for solutions to major global problems. But if through a combination of political indifference and benign neglect, the international community does allow the UN to slowly “die the death of a thousand cuts,” we would rapidly become aware of the gaping hole it would leave in the current order, as states began reverting to the sort of unilateral, aggressively bilateral, or Darwinist behaviors we thought we had consigned to an earlier age. Its therefore worth recalling what the UN uniquely offers the international community, and why it is worth defending and strengthening for the future:

  1. An agreed Charter containing global norms and procedures which could never be renegotiated in the current age;
  2. An entrenched principle of multilateralism, based on the sovereign equality of states, that provides a global decision-making process, that benefits smaller and middle powers who collectively make up more than 90% of the international community;
  3. A source of unchallenged global legitimacy;
  4. A unique claim to universality;
  5. A vast system of international law, norms and dispute resolution mechanisms and procedures, covering domains from terrorism to telecommunications.
  6. A unique capacity for collective action on threats to international peace and security, ranging from sanctions to authorised armed intervention.
  7. A capacity for collective action on sustainable development, from poverty to climate;
  8. A capacity to act rapidly and at scale to natural, or man-made, humanitarian disasters;
  9. A unique global convening power to deal with new global challenges as they arise;
  10. A capacity for the UN, through the Secretary General, to take initiatives on its own account, to deal with intractable global problems.

These do not of themselves solve the deep problems now confronting the global order. But if properly harnessed, they represent a mechanism for doing so, drawing afresh on this extraordinary list of institutional strengths. And this in turn will require the next secretary-general to implement far-reaching reforms to radically improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the UN, to convince member states that, properly empowered, the UN can make a measurable difference in solving the great global problems for which purpose it was established in the first place.

The Hon Kevin Rudd, a former Prime Minister of Australia, president of the Asia Society Policy Instiute in New York, Chair of the International Commission on Multilateralism, and author of UN2030 – Rebuilding Order in a Fracturing World

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